In the end, I decided not to go kayaking. I needed a change fo scenery, and given temperatures in Rovinj must have been well over 40 degrees, even on the water it would have been meltingly hot.
By the time I got back to the campsite after my last entry, the goulash was well underway, bubbling in a big pot over the fire. Dragan scarped some coals off to one side, and placed half a beer keg on them, with onions and potatoes to fry in the bottom. The Dutch couple on the campsite offered us all genievre as an aperitif, and later Dragan brought out the rakija. A Belgian couple had also pitched up, and contributed some vanilla liqueur which the local guys loved, calling it "Belgian milk". I was given further insight into the confusing intricacies of Eastern European identities, as Dragan was at pains to explain that he was Istrian not Croatian.
In spite of all that excitement, I woke at a reasonable time, packed up and set off for my last real border crossing! This time they actually looked at my passport (though not the bike papers!), and the Slovenian border guard asked about the trip and voiced approval.
My first stop was Lipica, where they breed Lipizzaner horses, the same type as used by the Spanish Riding School in Vienna. I'd heard that it's possible to ride the horses, so planned an overnight stop, but unfortunately the only riding option is as part of a week-long, hugely expensive dressage course! So I made do with a visit. It's guided tours only, and they divide you into groups according to language. Only four people in the French group, I'll use my other nationality for the day! Five minutes to go, and an enormous tour-bus full of French-speakers turns up. There goes that plan!
From there it's only a short ride to Skocjan caves. I'd passed the turn-off already, and there was a campsite signposted essentially from the motorway. The Belgians at Dragan's had warned me that Slovenia was very touristy, so I expected a huge site full of families in caravans. Instead, I found myself nosediving down a tiny little road, landing up in a large empty field. The friendly owner pointed out that they had a small island in the river, so I pitched the tent there, in a lovely, cool, shady spot. Ecerything is relative though - one of the trees had a thermometre on it, 33 degrees in the shade!
My guide at Lipica had told me it never gets that hot in Slovenia, and sure enough at 5am I woke with the beginnings of a migraine and a sense of overwhelming pressure bearing down. The storm brokespectacularly an hour or so later, and by the time I got up there were puddles in every hollow on the island. Visits to Skocja are at specific times, and I didn't want to miss one, so I had to pack up as quickly as possible, the tent sodden.
At least in the cave I was dry! Skocjan cave is unusual in having a river running through it, at the bottom of a deep underground gorge. The cave's chambers are far bigger than any I had ever seen, with stalagmites several metres tall. Again a seemingly quiet tour had been joined at the last minute by a large group, this time some rather rude young people of uncertain origin, who decided to interrupt the guide with shouts of "in English!" when she welcomed everyone in Slovenian first.
The rain had stopped by the time we emerged, and I carried on my way. The idea was to make this a caves day, and next on the list was Postojna. It's one of the biggest caves in the world, and touted as a major Slovenian attraction. All the photos show people on a little train going through, and when I arrived it was heaving. Deciding that I'd had enough of being herded, I turned around, and went on an expotition.
My scribbled noted mentioned Krizna Cave, which supposedly has ice stalactites and lakes you can arrange boat trips on. I'd initially given up on it as I couldn't find it anywhere on the map, but on my last day in Croatia I'd spotted it in the Slovenian part of my Croatia map. The last 2km to reach it are on gravel track through the forest, and I apologised inwardly to the mechanic in Split, who's put me under strict instructions not to leave the tarmac given the poor condition of my head bearing.
By sheer luck I'd timed it perfectly, arriving just as a group was heading into the cave. But this is no tour-bus shepherding experience. Here you are given wellies and a hand-held lamp with a battery pack. There is no permanent lighting in the cave, and the guide had us turn our torches off at one point - complete, utter, absolute darkness. If there are ice stalactites they're further in, but the ceiling is a glod and silver Milky Way of shimmering bacteria. The river water is so clear you can't see it - just a rippling surface floating above the rock. We took a boat across the first lake, and dodged drips. One rock formation looked disturbingly like a human figure trying to break free. All in all, a proper cave adventure!
From there I rode to Sticna, where there is a large abbey. Rurla Slovenia is exactly as I imagined it to be: green, mountainous, forested, dotted with small villages and innumerable churches. In Ukraine I watched people cutting grass for hay; here the hayricks are mostly empty, and bales are being stcked ready for winter.
I rode around Sticna for a long time trying to find accommodation, and praying that the rain would hold off until I did. In the process I discovered that the abbey complex itself is only open to individuals at 2 and 4pm on Sundays - not much use to me! I ended up in the only place I could find, an overpriced hotel with springs coming through the mattress.
Next morning while I ate breakfast, the owner came across to inform me I had a flat tyre! Sure enough, the back was squatting sadly on its deflated rubber. I still have no idea how it happened, but the owner had a friend who fixes tyres, so he and a random punter helped me balance the bike on some bricks, and we got the wheel off. The friend then disappeared with it and my spare inner tube, and returned half an hour later with neat patch in the old inner. Much easier than trying to wrestle with doing it all myself - I'm not sure I would have succeeded, so thank goodness it didn't happen in the middle of nowhere!
After all that I left late, and paused in Novo Mesto, which is pleasant enough, but devoid of all life on a Sunday. From there I umm-ed and aah-ed about where to go. I really wanted to end up in a mountain hut by the Rinka Waterfall in the north, but I also wanted to visit Podsreda Castle further east. Doing both meant a lot of riding, and if the castle was guided tour only I might not make it to the waterfall. But I took the gamble, and if you're doing it you may as well do it properly, so I took the shortcut too. Which initially led me to a dead end at a farm, where two children stared at me as if they'd never seen a girl alone on a motorbike before, and a third locked itself inside the house!
I eventually found the right road, a tiny strip of tarmac climbing up at impossible angles. The castle is not a guided tour, and now houses exhibitions of various artwork, including washing lines full of women's underwear frmo the 20th century. One room as lined with tiny engravings, each so lifelike you expected them to start moving any second, carrying on the lives the artist had interrupted.
The ride from there to the waterfall was long but varied. I followed fast main roads through wide river valleys, and smaller ones winding through gorges, and finally the road to the waterfall itself. Round a bend, and suddenly there it is, heading stright to a semicircle of high, bare mountaintops. The road runs along a river, or, in summer, along a dry river-bed, which is where the waterfall should end up! So no waterfall. But I did find a very nice little mountain guesthouse type place, with superb views from the back terrace, and I had time for a wander before dark.
That night as I marked the day's route in my mapbook of Eastern Europe, I was startled to see another line on the same page, higher up. Many months ago I'd ridden in the opposite direction, barely 200km north of where I sat now. I don't think it had really hit me till then just how close I am to the end. I even rode through a tiny bit of Austria on the way to Ljubljana, just as I did from Germany in the first few days.
I really like Ljubljana. The streets lining the river are full of cafes, where the beautiful people gather of an evening. Pokey side-streets run between coloured houses, and tall church spires dominate the skyline. It has the elegance of Paris but without the grandeur or pretension of the more touristy capital cities.
From Ljubljana I rode to Bled, via a short stop in Skofja Loka. Skofja Loka is a "museum town", whatever that means - to me it meant I could wander and poke around through all the open doors, even if they led to people's houses! Bled is of course touristy. But there's a reason for that: it's beautiful. The water in the lake is turquoise, something that the postcards don't seem to capture. And where the Croatian coast has turquoise water that's clear when you're in it, in Bled it stays the same colour when seen from underwater, giving the impression you're swimming in a giant paint-pot.
Bled has become my base for a frenzy of activity. Yesterday I swam to the island, then went canyoning, and jumped off the top of a 9m waterfall as well as abseiling through gorges. There was a group of young French people with me for that, and they were camped right next to me so the evening was spent in relaxed socialising. Today, after 3 days of waiting, the weather finally changed in my favour (there's a first time for eveything!) and the wind became favourable for paragliding! I spent half an hour flying over mountains, seeing Bled and the Triglav mountains in the far distance, and Austria the other way. There really is no feeling on earth like that of not being on it, and I will definitely be investigating the possibility of learning for myself when I get back. As if that wasn't enough, this afternoon I climbed a mountain to find a lake, and tomorrow, my last day in Slovenia, my last night of camping, I will be going rafting.
After that I spend two nights in Venice, at a nice hotel courtesy of my parents, and then it's home - so this will almost certainly be the last blog written while I'm still on the road!
Posted by Laura Bennitt at July 24, 2009 06:35 PM GMT